Few characters personify a region in quite the same way the cowboy atop his trusted horse represents the American West. Long a standard subject in popular culture, the cowboy has come to symbolize everything from the hard-working, chivalric individualist to the heavy-drinking, thieving gunslinger. Whether wearing the symbolic white hat of the good guy or the villain’s black hat, the cowboy is recognized world-wide, instantly identified by his unique style of clothing. From the 19th century to today, artists have played to and against the stereotypes, helping to further the collective fascination with this Western American icon.
While the romanticized depictions of cowboys spark our imagination, the reality of cowboy life is typically more humble. Specifically, cowboys are people who herd animals and tend to cattle on ranches. Their practices stem from the Mexican vaquero tradition and the Spanish hacienda system of cattle ranching, which required ranchers to work on horseback in order to cover large areas of land. In America, the number of cowboys grew significantly following the Civil War as people were needed to help meet the nation’s growing demand for beef. A culture of rugged independence developed among cowboys, and they were renowned for having particular skills on horseback.
The height of the American cowboy culture was in the 1870s and 1880s. By the following decade, cattle drives became less frequent. Barbed wire fencing closed off grazing lands, more railways were available to ship cattle, and meat packing plants were built closer to ranches. While the work for cowboys became less available, the myths about cowboys began to grow in popular culture. Cowboys, along with skilled cowgirls, were highlighted in the Wild West Shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then, cowboys have been regularly featured in movies, television shows, comic books and pulp fiction.
Drawn from Phoenix Art Museum’s extensive holdings of art of the American West, Riding Tall features variations on the cowboy theme.
Left: Tom Ryan, Six Pack Saturday Night, 1986. Pastel on paper, Framed: 41.25" x 2 x 41.25". Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, museum purchase with funds provided by the Western Art Associates. Middle: Frederic Remington, The Half Wild Cattle Come Down from the Hills, 1896. Pen, wash (ink), paper, 20.875" x 25.375". Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of the Carl S. Dentzel Family Collection. Right: Bill Schenck, Untouchables, 2000. Oil on canvas, 40" x 48". Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of Bill Schenck.
This exhibition is organized by Phoenix Art Museum.